Carnage. He’s the Marmite of the comic world – either nectar in a jar, or dogshit on toast, depending on your point of view. In a sense I grew up with Carnage. Some of the first Marvel comics I bought with my own money were from the Maximum Carnage storyline, and being 14 or so at the time, I was right into the idea of an alien-suited serial killer kicking Spider-ass.

Looking back at that story arc, though, I’m less than impressed. While the idea of a remorseless serial killer bonding with an equally deranged alien symbiote is a good one, the delivery was off. Instead of something genuinely chilling we got a two-dimensional, almost cartoonish character who was often more tiresome than terrifying.

But I always thought the potential was there, and writer Zeb Wells is proving me right with his current Carnage USA mini-series from Marvel. Today we’re going to look at the first two issues. All you need to know comes right after these ads.

Carnage USA Issue 1

The concept of the story is this: Cletus Cassidy wants to take over the world, and he’s starting in a small town in Colorado, USA.

And that, so far, is it. It sounds like a hokey idea on paper, but Wells is really nailing the execution of it, and the series is already turning into one of the best Marvel stories I’ve read in years.

Things start slowly as we are introduced to some of the residents of the sleepy town of Doverton. We see kids playing, pensioners sitting on their porch, even the town drunk being half-carried home by friendly townsfolk. And then Cletus Cassidy turns up and what happens next is out and out… well, Carnage.

And what a Carnage he is. Cletus doesn’t come over in the “ooh, I’m mad, me!” way he has in many of his other appearances. He is portrayed here as cruel and sadistic. There is a real undercurrent of danger in everything he says and does, so that even when he is behaving “normally” we never know what he’s going to do next.

As the town falls to Cassidy and his ‘other’, the US Government starts to take notice. The Avengers are sent in to bring Carnage down, and in one of the few weak points of the story they get their asses handed to them in about five seconds flat.

Seriously, I suspect my grandmother could’ve done more to stop Carnage than Cap, Wolverine and the rest of them did, and my grandmother has been dead for 18 years. Their shocking performance was enough to pull me out of the story for a second, but it’s the only foot Wells puts wrong in the opening issue, and without giving too much away it does make for a fantastic big splash panel in the final pages.

Spider-Man himself manages to escape in issue two, thanks to the intervention of some of the surviving townsfolk. How this will play out remains to be seen, because much of the second issue is devoted to the five new symbiote characters that are introduced. Yes, more symbiotes. You’d think the idea had been stretched far enough, but apparently Wells disagrees. I’m going to trust him for now and see how it goes, but none of them really do much for me on the basis of this issue.

Fortunately, we’re treated to some more scenes with Cassidy being proper sinister. He is using his ‘other’ to work the townspeople like puppets, and the sight of him clutching the baby of a woman he has deemed his ‘wife’ as she kneels on the floor begging for her child’s life reveals just how dark a tale this is shaping up to be.

The artist, Clayton Crain, is on top form here. I’m a huge fan of his hyper-realistic style which reminds me in many ways of the work of Alex Ross. The way he paints Carnage himself is particularly revolting. Never before has a symbiote looked so gloopy and alive, and Crain’s artwork takes an already strong story and just lifts it to a whole new level.

Critics of Crain’s style say his panels are often too dark and muddy, and that occasionally happens here. But this is the type of story that needs “dark and muddy”. It’s the Spider-Man equivalent of the Brad Pitt movie, Se7en, and Cletus Cassidy is shaping up to be every bit as psychotic as Kevin Spacey’s John Doe character in that movie.

I read both of these issues in digital format, and Crain’s artwork impressed me so much that I’m going to seek them out in print just so I can flip through the pages and absorb the images any time I like.

As much a horror story as a superhero tale, Carnage USA is shaping up to be something really special. Whether the slew of new symbiotes will drag it down in future issues remains to be seen, but for now I’m hooked in for the ride.

Rating: ★★★★½

You can pre-order the hardback collected edition of Carnage USA from Amazon now. Doing so helps support ThePhantomZone.